Conductor Fiora Contino
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|The American conductor, Fiora
Contino, was born into an eminent musical family. Her father, Ferruccio
Corradetti, was a leading baritone at La Scala and other principal
European opera houses. She graduated from Oberlin College with a
Bachelor of Music degree in piano. She furthered her musical training
in Europe studying conducting at the Conservatoire Americain in
Fontainebleau and the Ecole Normale in Paris with renowned pedagogue
Nadia Boulanger, and at the Akademie Vienna with Hans Swarowsky. She
then earned a Master's Degree, with distinction, and a Doctorate of
Music in conducting from Indiana University School of Music. She was
awarded the 1960 Premier Prix Hors Concours, cum laude from the
Conservatoire in the field of conducting.
A respected educator, Fiora Contino has held teaching positions at
Hillsdale College, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College, as
Director of Opera and Choral Activities at Bowling Green State
University, and as principal conductor and Chairman of the Choral
Department at Indiana University. She also served at Peabody Institute,
and The University of Texas at Austin.
Fiora Contino has conducted opera performances for Aspen Musical
Festival, Memphis Opera, Fort Worth Opera, Spring Opera Theater of the
San Francisco Opera, Anchorage Opera, and the Teatro Grattacielo at
Alice Tully Hall in New York City. Her performance of Puccini's Madama Butterfly with the
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, was greeted by the Philadelphia Evening
Bulletin as "...magnificent, moving and of the very first order. Fiora
Contino towered over everything as the conductor and music director.
She held everything together with a baton that was sharp and in clear
control of a magnificently coordinated performance. Her presence would
do honor to any opera house in the world." She has led many productions
for the Memphis Opera, including a performance of Puccini's Turandot with Birgit Nilsson.
Fiora Contino has been a regular conductor at the Temple University
Music Festival in Ambler, Pennsylvania and Director of the Choral
Institute at the Aspen Music Festival. She has also led performances
with the symphony orchestras of New Orleans, Hartford, Baltimore,
Memphis, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and San Antonio.
New York columnist Byron Belt wrote of her in the Sunday Press, “She is
too little known, but Ms. Contino is certainly one of the outstanding
women conductors of our day - and we mention the sex…to underscore the
fact because a man of her superlative gifts would surely be an
international superstar today.”
Fiora Contino was in Chicago in May of 1990 to conduct Lakmé with the Chicago Opera
Theater at the Athenaeum, and she graciously took time from her
schedule on the day before the first performance to speak with me . . .
Bruce Duffie: Thank
you very much for taking time on the
day before the first performance.
Fiora Contino: You
are more than welcome.
BD: Is there a
sense of relief or a sense of expectancy on
day before you start off for real?
FC: It’s curiously
a winding down day because the nights
the final dress rehearsal are just so very critical; they’re full of
a certain kind of urgency, so today’s almost like a day of rest.
Tomorrow I will get myself together for the performance, but right now
it’s almost like a sense of relief because the preparation is over.
BD: Has all your
preparation been done or have you left a
bit for the performance?
FC: I am sure that
every performance will be
different. In opera, it depends so much on the way the singers
feel. If they’re really feeling their oats, you want to just let
them go slower. That’s always the
danger. When they’re feeling really good, they’ll tend to want to
BD: They’ll want to luxuriate?
FC: Yes, in a way.
BD: So you have to
FC: In a sense
because it’s my job to pace it. Lakmé
such a special kind of opera anyhow. It needs really to have
BD: What is it about this
French work that requires a
FC: First of all, it’s a
number opera. Therefore,
unless one is aware of the larger form it tends to seem, “We’re
finished with this and now we do that.” It could degenerate to
that and I hope that it doesn’t. You have to link
it together and not come to a thundering climax in the middle of an act
so that people think it’s the end of an act. The second act is
very long. It’s a collection of vignettes, as it were,
in the market place, so that takes great care. The last act is
almost like an apotheosis. It’s very sensual and even though she
takes her own life it’s like an opiate. It becomes that kind of
it is very dangerous because if one gives into
that without a sense of urgency, the act doesn’t work. The first
act is just about a perfect act. It was made
BD: Then why is
this opera is such a rarity?
FC: Things come in
and out of fashion. I
remember when I went to school many years ago, people disdained
Tchaikovsky. I remember a time
when Wagner was extolled, and then early Verdi was though inferior to
late Verdi. It’s not; it is what it is. Everything is what
BD: But what has
shoved this opera back into fashion?
FC: Do you think it
is back in fashion? It’s a
wonderful vehicle for a particular singer, and when
one has that kind of a singer to sing the title role of Lakmé,
then you really have a chance at a
performance which will be very exciting. I think that we really
do with Diana Walker who has high Es. Not “Bird Es,” but you need
to be exciting.
BD: “Bell Es?”
FC: Yes! So
to speak; there are several in the Bell
BD: So then really
you are waiting for the singer who can
it through and then you do it.
FC: I think that is
what Allen Stone had in his mind, and I
that he actually put this opera together for Diana Walker. She is
also uncommonly beautiful. She is so stunning.
BD: Which doesn’t
detract from the performance!
FC: To say the
least, because it also would take someone
would be ravishingly beautiful. This is a kind of a fantasy, a
French fantasy. It’s 1883, if I am
not mistaken, when this was first premiered, and the French always had
this fascination for the East
this case India. It’s
fantasy child born out of his imagination. The opera is scored
sensitively, with great subtlety. I think it
really hangs together. If it is done too sweet, you could have a
sugar high. I’m hoping that we’re
not doing it that way. It needs a great deal of
recordings are also not very wonderful. The Mesplé
recording is the one that’s
regarded as being very French, but for me it is not as
BD: Do you rely at
all on recordings for ideas?
FC: No, although I
must say that I have researched
all of them. I like to get an
idea where it fails, especially on a specialty work. I sometimes
listen to recordings much as an amateur would listen to them. In
other words, is it interesting or is it boring? I look for what’s
to get a hint of what the score might hold.
BD: To get the
FC: Yes, but I
don’t rely on any recording in terms of tempi or anything
BD: Do you have any
expectations of the audience that comes
to see these performances?
FC: In terms of size?
BD: No, in terms of
ability to understand the work or
knowledge of it.
FC: It’s an easy
work to see and hear. There’s a
certain amount of spectacle in it. There is a great deal of
exoticism in the scoring and in the melodies. It’s kind of like Madama Butterfly, except this time
we’re in India. The Indian
priestess unwittingly falls in love with someone whose cultural class
is a British soldier, and when she realizes that… I won’t go
into the story, but he really is so torn that he
will eventually go back to his regiment. She decides to take her
life so that he could be free to go. It’s very much the Butterfly story.
BD: Very passionate all
the way around.
FC: Yes, I think it is,
so I have an expectation that the
audience will love it. We’ve had a few visitors at rehearsals and
they seem to be really astonished.
BD: You conduct
opera all over this
country. Do you also conduct opera in Europe?
really. I do the regional companies. I
have my own
company in Peoria, Illinois, the Peoria Civic Opera. I have
conducted in Europe, but not opera.
BD: Do you conduct
mostly opera in your career?
FC: I’ve done a little
bit of everything, or maybe a lot of
everything. I’ve done a great deal of choral music, especially
when I was younger. I was head of the choral
department at Indiana University for a time, and then I was head of the
Choral Institute at Aspen for a
long time. I became really interested in symphonic music, so I’ve
done a good deal of that. I
was Music Director at the Anchorage Music Festival, and that’s a purely
symphonic assignment. But I
think maybe I am more at home in opera than I am at the other things,
even though my interest is very strongly peaked by the idea of
orchestral conducting. That’s a field I would like to do so much
BD: You are from a
family that sang at La Scala?
father [shown in photo at right]
was a very well known singer at the turn of the
century. So I come from an operatic background, and language has
always been easy for me.
BD: Did you learn from
him or is it just a taste and the
FC: More a taste than
anything, really, because my father died
I was fourteen. He was so much older than my mother, so he was
born a good long time ago.
BD: Do you remember him
in a few performances?
FC: I remember him as a
teacher at the time. I was a child of his old age, so I
remember him as a musician, as a strong, intellectual presence.
BD: I’ve heard some
recordings of your father!
impressed] Have you really???
BD: Yes. They are
very strong, very interesting, very to
FC: He was very good, I
think. Isn’t that wonderful that
you have heard him!
BD: It’s good that you
admire your father.
FC: Yes. As a child, you
would always admire your
father anyhow, but then as I’ve grown and met all the people who worked
with him, it’s
so gratifying to know that indeed, yes he was wonderful. I have a
sister in Italy, Iris Adami Corradetti, who is recognized as one of
the great singers and one of the great musicians and teachers of
BD: Why didn’t you go
FC: I had no voice, but
it’s just part of who I am. I sing
guess you would say.
BD: You use others’
FC: Yes. But the
idea of voice in music is so interesting
an intellectual thing as well with the literature, the philosophy, the
history, the poetry. All of
that almost takes music to an apogee, being spokesman for
humanity. I know that sounds
BD: No, not
really. Now you have this experience of the
great voices throughout a
long period of time. Are the young singers today maintaining a
standard that was set by previous
generations and your father and the generations before him.
FC: That’s a hard
question. I think that life is harder
for our young singers than it ever would have been for my father
because the theatres are so large. This is one of the great
things about the Athenaeum here in Chicago, and that’s why Diana can
sing Lakmé night after night, rehearsal after rehearsal.
a nine hundred seat theatre. In Peoria we have a twenty-two
seat theatre, so it takes far more effort to sing over
everything. There is also the traveling. My father did a
deal of traveling. He went to Egypt, to France, to Germany, and
when they would go with Toscanini to South America, they stayed three
BD: And they would
go by boat, which was more restful.
FC: Yes, the whole
company would go by boat. So I
think that life is harder for these youngsters.
Mark Thomsen, for instance, our tenor, is so busy. He goes from
engagement to engagement.
BD: Shouldn’t you shake
him by the lapels and tell
him to slow down?
FC: There’s no way; he’s
earning a living.
singers burn themselves out by
singing too much?
FC: Sometimes they do.
Sometimes people are unwisely
advised to go into a larger repertoire than they should at their
age. There’s a lot
bad advice. They have managers, and managers sometimes have the
best interest of the singer at
heart, and sometimes they market them. There’s a certain element
that, though there are some
wonderful, wonderful voices.
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] You mean singers shouldn’t be traded on the stock
like pork bellies?
Pavarotti doesn’t sing
anymore unless there’s a hundred thousand in the hall, a Madison
Square Garden, or some sort of a
sports arena. And it’s so unmusical; everything is
amplified. But he
makes so much more money at
that than if he just pursued a career.
BD: Yet all of the young
singers aspire to have the supersize career.
FC: There’s another
thing about singers of my father’s era and
before. They were trained in a discipline which is
loosely called bel canto
said that it was never the volume but always the quality of the sound
that was the
important thing. Every
subtlety of the word was necessary, every legato line, every kind of
vocalise that made the voice
limber was the thing that
was definitely stressed. Nowadays the teachers of singing will
put a twenty-five year
old into the role of Siegmund even if he doesn’t have a top because
they say he’s got
a big tenor voice. I think it’s
BD: They sing for a few
years, and that’s it.
FC: That’s right.
BD: Is there any hope
for opera as you see it?
FC: Oh, of course there
is! That will always
continue. There is also hope when composers are drawn to it again
increasing numbers. We can’t simply do the operas of the past.
advice do you have for a young composer who wants to write opera?
FC: Get a grant that’s
connected to a company that will produce
it. That’s really the only way. You need to have a company that
give you a premiere.
BD: You’ve conducted
operas in the very old style, and in
the Romantic style, and in the new style. What makes some of
these operas work and
some of them not work?
FC: Sometimes it’s just
the genius of the musician who writes
music. Sometimes with particular things, the marriage of text and
music is an unbeatable thing, but Verdi wrote very good operas with
very bad texts. But for
instance, an opera like L'Incoronazione
di Poppea of Monteverdi has an incredibly beautiful
and wonderful text. Wagner, in a curious way, succeeded so well
he wrote his own texts and they were welded to his music, as are the
Boito collaborations with Verdi. Falstaff is unbeatable, as is
the Barber collaboration with
Menotti on Antony and Cleopatra.
[See my Interviews
with Gian Carlo Menotti.] I still don’t understand why that
opera is not
redone. Barber is a very good operatic composer, and
Vanessa is very good opera.
BD: You have this vast
array of operas to choose
from. How do you decide which ones you will seek to conduct?
FC: I usually have no
say about that at all. I am usually just
simply hired as another cog in the wheel. In Peoria I must say
that it’s just a financial thing
of what I think will bring people into the house. I don’t know
whether we could mount a Lakmé
it play in Peoria?”
FC: Exactly. I am
not in a position to decide. Alan Stone has made a
viable opera company on doing the very things that the Chicago Lyric
normally does not present, and he does them in English. I have
mixed feelings about opera in English.
BD: Let’s wade into that
discussion. What are your
feelings about opera in English?
FC: I think the whole
movement of opera in English
born out of the German movement that did all the operas in
Germany. Germany had such a
flourishing opera, and still does.
BD: But Italy translated
Wagner, so we can spread around the blame.
FC: That’s true and my
father did those in Italian as well. If the translators were more
skillful, it would be better.
BD: We need more people
like Andrew Porter. [See my Interview with Andrew
FC: Yes. The
problem facing the young singer is enormous
for translations. In my little company, I find
that oftentimes if I do the big things, the
singers are not so terribly interested in
learning something in English
translation because the next time they might be asked to do it, it
might be in yet another
translation. There is really no standard, no standardization
of it. Certain operas work very
well in English. I must say that when you get a Traviata in
Italian, it just is more exciting. The
vowels are in the right places because it was written with that
language in mind.
BD: What about fast
comic opera with lots of recitative?
FC: Probably they are
better in English, although the surtitles have
opened things up. There is no real excuse for somebody not
come into the theatre saying “I don’t
understand.” Most regional companies now do use surtitles.
BD: So here’s the
dilemma. Would you rather do it in the
original with surtitles or a brilliant English translation?
FC: If I saw a brilliant
English translation, I might be
but I like the surtitles. You can look at them or not look at
wish. Nobody forces you to look at them if it disturbs you. I’m
finding that the audiences are reacting with a much
stronger degree of enthusiasm with the surtitles.
BD: Are the surtitles
going to mean the death of opera
FC: It depends on the
purpose of the companies that
produce opera. The Chicago Opera Theatre stands very
strongly behind opera in English,
and they do the kinds of things where English is a help in making
something viable theatre. Most regional companies are going to
BD: How is the health of
regional companies in America these
days? You’ve conducted a number of them.
FC: There sure are a lot
of them, and they stay alive
because of the generosity of their boards. Opera simply does not
pay. You can cut every corner and you can fill every seat
and it still is a nonpaying situation.
BD: Is that right?
FC: I don’t know that
there’s any other way to do it because it
involves so many people doing so many tasks. And why shouldn’t
paid? I have nothing against the theatre unions. Why
shouldn’t those people be paid like plumbers? God knows they
sacrifice enough to being musicians or dancers, but the cost totally
is staggering. We do seven performances because the
theatre is small, but you can only do it so many times. You are not
going to go on the road with something like they can with Phantom of the Opera. It’s
not entertainment; it’s art.
BD: Then let me ask a
great big philosophical question.
What is the purpose of opera in society?
FC: It’s art. It’s
an art form which is a magnificent
attempt at combining many, many disciplines.
BD: Is there any place
for entertainment value in this art?
FC: I think that’s a
by-product. If you are entertained,
that’s fine. I don’t see that you go to Fidelio to be
entertained. I really don’t.
BD: Do you go to the Barber of Seville to be entertained?
FC: Possibly. Of
course in their day those were meant
exactly for that reason, but I think it’s a by-product as we recreate
BD: You say “in their
day.” Is there any way that we
could – or should – understand
these operas in the same way that they were intended by their composers
now we’ve come through wars and
depressions and upheavals?
FC: It’s every
conductor’s hope that there is an
understanding, and that’s the composer’s understanding. That’s
complicated question. As a producer, does Zefferelli serve
Puccini’s interest in presenting
Turandot by having so many
people on the stage that you can’t find the
principal characters? Opera is such a form of so many different
people working on the same score
BD: Then whom do you
FC: I try to serve the
composer. I really do, and in this Lakmé we have a marvelous
director in David Gately. I have
never worked with him before, but I have
nothing but admiration for his work. For all of the
posturing that could so easily creep into this kind of an opera, he’s
tried very hard not to go for the obvious. Then it becomes
banal. But the score has beautiful
melodies and very sensitive
registration. It’s incredible. In some of these scenes,
every measure is adding a wind instrument or a string
instrument which holds on a little bit longer than the winds.
It’s a very, very subtle piece of work and I think it
deserves to be heard. I go for what I think the music says.
this case he uses chromaticism in the French way with all of these
insane keys. The orchestra is in six flats and then
suddenly there are measures of chords that are absolutely sharps, but
she dies in C Major. If you think you
understand his harmonic reasons for writing as he does, it’s
illuminating as to what he was trying to bring to the
drama. There are all kinds of touches, but they’re subtle
touches. So hopefully
this opera will be fluid, sensitively played in tune because I think
that French music has got to have a refinement about it.
BD: Are you now becoming
something of a champion of Lakmé?
FC: I think I am.
BD: You mentioned that
it is hard for you to pick and
choose the operas you conduct. How do you decide if you will
accept or decline the offers that you receive?
FC: Oftentimes that’s
just a question of what’s free in the
book. I still teach at the University of Texas at Austin, and
give me lots of time off. I’m a senior member of the faculty and
I have a great many privileges. So
in certain cases it’s simply a matter of time. I’m always
anything that is offered.
BD: Even if you think that it
is not a worthy opera?
BD: How do you make an
opera that is perhaps not worthy as interesting
as one which is?
FC: Some people may
think that Lakmé is
not interesting. It’s like finding who a child is that way.
Suppose you have a
child that somebody thinks is not worthy or is not intellectual or is
not this or is not that. The point is not to try to find a child
worthy of you but to try to find out who that child is. As far as
a piece of music is concerned, that’s to be found in so many ways in
the harmonies, the orchestration, the pacing, etc. If it has weak
you try very, very hard to make it work so that they don’t seem like
weaknesses, but that they seem to be like the foible of the composer.
I don’t know whether I am making myself clear...
BD: It sounds like no
matter what the score, you are trying
to root out the best of it and show that.
BD: Just to play devil’s
advocate for a moment, are there
some scores that just don’t work and should be either left on the
library shelf or be discarded completely? You don’t need to name
FC: Oh, probably.
It’s always interesting to give something
life, at least it’s always interesting for me. I can’t think of
anything that I have ever done – this is a
terrible admission – that at
the time I was doing it I didn’t believe in it.
BD: I think it’s a
wonderful admission! It’s great
believe in everything you’re doing and give it its moment, its best
FC: One simply tries…
BD: I want to bring up
the subject of being a woman
conductor. This is still, even in this day and age, certainly not
out of the ordinary but yet not mainstreamed as much as it
FC: It’s not main stream
yet, but it will be. I’m sure that it
will be. It wasn’t main stream for women to play in symphony
orchestras until relatively recently. Now it’s not main stream
women to have the leading positions like concert master or principal
cellist. I am proud to say that my daughter, Adriana, is the
cellist in the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in a country which doesn’t
normally have women in the orchestra. She was just telling me on
the phone the other day that they were thinking about hiring a
conductor who when asked, “How many women are there in the Vienna
Philharmonic?” he said, “Two too many.” So she’s
ready to run for cover, but I think it’s coming. I’ve never felt
any animosity or any hostility between an orchestra and myself.
wait to see if you know your stuff.
BD: Are you saying they
put you through the ringer a little more?
FC: The only time that
ever has happened to me was years ago
I did a series of operas in Philadelphia for the Ambler Festival.
It was the Pittsburgh Orchestra in the pit. The very first opera
that I did was Traviata.
They had played it a thousand times and
they didn’t want to rehearse it. I found myself sounding like a
kindergarten teacher saying,
“You will pay attention.” So it was a very sobering experience
me. There was hostility there.
I think they thought they needed to rehearse this one more time with
this lady, where a man would not have had that.
FC: I don’t think so…
well, I’m not sure.
BD: Do you think maybe
they were just bored with Traviata?
FC: I don’t think
so. Let me put
it this way, they wouldn’t have let it show. They might
have been just as bored. As it turned
out, I was sort of on trial until the performance time when they
that I could lead a performance. All the subsequent operas were
more than a wonderful relationship – it was really a great relationship
between myself and the orchestra.
BD: Is it perhaps more
satisfying to take someone who isn’t
enthusiastic about a woman and make that person more enthusiastic?
FC: I don’t really
care. That’s his problem, not my problem.
Being a woman conductor, as far as I am concerned, is not a
cause. It’s just there. If somebody is uncomfortable with
their problem and not my problem.
BD: From your point of
view is there any real difference between
a woman leading a piece and a man leading the same piece?
FC: I don’t thinks so; I
really don’t think so. I’ve done
lot of teaching in my day, and I don’t find that a male student or a
female student couldn’t either not learn from me. I find really
that there should be no difference. It’s the brain that’s doing
BD: Then there is
perhaps no more sympathy for Violetta because
you’re a woman?
FC: I doubt it.
BD: Are you proud of the
strides that women have made as far as
breaking down these barriers?
definitely. There are some very, very talented young
women coming up, such as Catherine Comet and JoAnn Falletta. [See
my Interview with
BD: Catherine Comet is
going to conduct the Chicago Symphony
orchestra next year.
FC: So I understand.
BD: What about some of
the older generation such as the late
Antonia Brico? Was she a pioneer?
FC: I think she was a
fluke, but I don’t know. I heard her once when she was really not with
it. That might have been an isolated experience.
BD: What about someone
like Sarah Caldwell? [See my Interview with Sarah
FC: She’s one of these
ladies that does everything. I think that
she is an enormously talented individual. If you are
stage directing and conducting at the same time, your focus is
split. I’ve got enough to do just shaping the musical line
worrying if somebody is in position. So I think that has blunted
a sense as a conductor because she chooses to do everything.
BD: You have no
ambitions to be a director?
FC: No. I tried it
once with Madama Butterfly
which I thought I
knew inside and out, and I said never again! I still remember...
was in Memphis and somebody told me the prop lady was
crying outside in the street. I had had a fit because
certain props were not in place when they were supposed to have been…
so I said never again.
BD: Yet now when you’re
conducting, do you not have a
responsibility to make sure that the stage director doesn’t go too far
FC: Sometimes you really
have not much to say, and in those
when you feel that the stage director is not in sympathy with the way
you feel the piece goes, I just try to stay out of his way and I go for
broke. I try to make the music as wonderful as I possibly can
though I might disagree. That’s happened more times than I care
BD: Let me ask the “capriccio”
question. Where should be the
balance between the music and the drama?
FC: They should be equal
BD: All the time?
FC: We have a kind of
regimen where certain rehearsals
belong to the stage director and certain rehearsals belong to the music
director, and all of us know the
rules. What’s so wonderful is when it starts to be a
BD: Do you attend the
FC: All of them, yes,
and when that happens, I think the
whole process is greatly strengthened.
BD: So you try to get a
unified piece every time?
FC: Yes. As I say
with David Gately it’s been a great experience,
because I was very worried about this opera.
BD: More so than others?
FC: Because it’s more
fragile than other
operas. It’s not your bread and butter kind of thing that no
it’s acted or how it’s sung, it’s going to work.
BD: Are there some
operas where you could start them and let them roll along by themselves?
FC: I think so, more so
than this one.
BD: Do you feel less
something that has less need for you?
FC: It just depends on
how you look at it. I remember
once doing a Marriage of Figaro
where I detested the whole production. But when I went into the
pit, I had to do it better, more true, more
everything that I believed in or I couldn’t have done it. So
sometimes it just depends on how you look at it. It is a
collaboration all the way down the line,
even in terms of sets, costumes, everything. This company is very
well organized. They have people here for weeks for
that is needed is here. I have a great admiration for what Alan
has put together here.
BD: As you look back
your career, is there anything that you never
expected to see as you started out, or
that you hoped and is coming true?
FC: That’s a long time
that you’re asking me to look over.
I am amazed that I have any career at all.
FC: Because I basically
stayed in an academic situation for
stability for the raising of children. I was at Indiana for a
long time. While I was there, I had been offered a written
contract by Adler, a
position as chorus master in San Francisco with the promise of some
conducting. I almost took it. We had just moved to
Bloomington, however, and my children were in high school and
had four children and the contract read thirty-two weeks. So that
was a hard choice at that time. I made a hard
choice to say that I couldn’t do it. So
having said that and having done that and staying in academe, I’ve
been astonished that my outside professional life has been as varied as
much as it has been. I’ve conducted a lot of orchestras in a lot
of places. I have been at Aspen and a number of other major
festivals, so I am surprised at that. I am wistful because of
all of it, but the orchestral position has never presented
would really love to have an orchestral position mostly because I
haven’t had a chance to do that much of the repertoire. It’s just
like a mountain ready to be climbed. I have done a lot of
orchestral conducting, but I have never been a music director of an
orchestra. I’ve never had that chance, and I think that the
young women that come up will have that chance. Looking back, I
am always so amazed that my children
have turned out so well, because they have. I have worked with a
lot of very major vocal stars like Birgit Nilsson in Turandot in
Memphis, and Dorothy Kirsten. [See my Interview with Birgit
Nilsson.] A lot of really very well known
people and I never looked for any of it. I’ve never had a
manager. I never really had the freedom. Now I have the
I am almost ready to resign my university job, although I could stay on
easily because I have tenure. I think that I have probably enough
work to carry me, but I’ve never taken that big step like these
youngsters do like to put yourself in the hands of a manager. Now
I don’t have the responsibility of maintaining a house and making sure
that all the kids went to school and were home, my life has changed a
little bit. It’s easier.
BD: Are you going to
take on more and more of these engagements?
FC: Why not, as a long
as I have the health to do it, and I seem
to have enough energy to do what I need to do.
BD: Is conducting fun?
FC: Oh definitely
yes. It’s so satisfying. It’s
like being an actor without being an actor, and being a singer without
being a singer, and being a composer without
being a composer. It’s the re-creation of the greatest minds and
intellects in the world.
Sometimes the most troubled, sometimes the happiest, sometimes… it’s
really my alter-life.
BD: Are you re-creating
it as exactly as you can, or
you putting a little bit of yourself in each one?
FC: Every artist puts
himself into everything or it would be
nothing. You always draw on your own experience. I don’t
attempt to convey the impression that I
would know what Delibes would want, or whether he would even like what
I am doing. I am just trying
my very best to understand his piece. Of course, that comes from
my training, just as he
tried his very best to create an Indian atmosphere. He never went
to India. It’s a fantasy,
you know, it’s a mind trip.
BD: So you’ve got to
have his fantasy and your own fantasy
BD: A marriage of two
FC: Yes. Well, I
don’t know how to respond to that because the conductor does not really
create the music. Diana Walker is
Lakmé, it’s not myself. I’m not
Lakmé except through what I can provide for her in terms of
through what I can do for her in terms of orchestral color and in
terms of pacing so that she won’t get tired. In a sense it’s like
an enabler for other people to create the music. I’m not
playing the violin; Arnie Roth is and playing it very well. So
it’s the most exciting thing in the world.
BD: Thank you for coming
to Chicago. I look forward to the production and hope that it
goes well, and I hope you will come back to Chicago.
FC: Thank you.
Thank you so much.
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© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at her hotel in Chicago on May 8,
(along with recordings) were used on WNIB later that day.
Permission granted to Joan Whittemore to use portions in her book Wisdom, Wit and Will: Women Choral
Conductors and their Art, published in 2009. The
transcription was posted on this
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.